Inspired by Ferguson but completely inadequate

After my parents divorced my dad bought a row house on Farragut Street in West Philadelphia. He took advantage of a discount housing deal offered by UPENN to populate surrounding neighborhoods (that were run down and high in crime) with university employees. He told my sister and I over the phone about how he was painting and fixing the place up and getting a room ready for us.

Later, when we visited my dad, we made a lot of new friends. My dad was a friendly guy who liked to have a good time. He made friends easily. In fact, he met his best friends for life, Tony and Paulette, in that neighborhood—they lived a few doors away. The neighborhood kids would often come over to play with us when we visited. We played with our toys, or we would jump rope, run races in the street, or play hide-and-seek-tag up and down the back alleys. We were never invited to their houses, and this bothered me. I understand the reasons better today. The abandoned building at the end of the block was off limits. A child’s body had been found there, said my dad, a story that terrified us into steering clear.

When we drove into the city each Friday night, we would drive right past the MOVE row houses. MOVE was a radical community of people who lived without electricity and heat. The children did not go to school and the adults did not pay taxes on their properties. When we drove down their block I would see MOVE members with their thick dreadlocks outside on their porches or talking together on the sidewalks. I started to recognize certain people and wondered about their lives and what they spent their days doing. My dad told us that the group had been given orders to leave their properties but that they were defying the city. Several years later (in 1985) when the MOVE house was bombed the faces of those people came back to me.

Also at about that time (late 70s-early 80s) there was a large community of Vietnamese people living in the neighborhood. My dad called them “the boat people.” He told us that their country had been ravaged by war and they were coming here, to Philadelphia, to this very neighborhood in West Philly, to look for a better life. My dad made me understand their hopes for a better life but also their poverty and struggle. I imagined making my way in an unknown place, an unforgiving concrete city, without even knowing the language.

It was these experiences that first taught me about my own privilege—how lucky I was to live most of my life in a big suburban home with a back yard and my own bedroom and a good school. How lucky I was to have parents who were educated and who traveled with me, to expose me to other parts of the world. How lucky I was to have food on the table and clothes that fit and to know the language of my country. That neighborhood made me understand class difference at a young age, and got me thinking about racial injustices as a result of the privileges we are born to.

When we first saw my father’s row house, many of the neighborhood children came over to meet my sister and me for the first time. And, I swear this is true, they stroked and touched our hair, saying they had never touched blonde hair before. All these years later, that specific experience sticks with me. How can we understand one another if we are still so segregated in so many ways? How can we trust each other if we have no exposure, no proximity, no concept of the struggles of others? How can we broaden our own horizons and our own limited scope of perception?

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Growing up

In the 1970s, shortly after my dad was tenured in the School of Engineering at UPENN, my parents divorced. My dad was working hard in those days and often when he took us for weekend visits we had to stop in at “the lab” to check on his grad students and their experiments.

His office and the student labs were housed in a rad 70s looking building at 32nd and Walnut in West Philadelphia. The building has not changed since then, at least not on the outside—it still has its dark sheet glass windows and boxy exterior. Inside it smelled like chalk and cleanser and chemicals. We would take the tiny elevator with is clanking orange doors to the third floor.

I remember especially the particle accelerator that he and his students had built— he allowed my sister and I to look through a glass lens at an atom shooting forward and splitting; it looked like nothing much to me at the time. I was more impressed by the immense equipment and the big lead screen that was supposed to protect us from radiation exposure, but that my dad darted back and forth in front of without a seeming care.

The desk in his corner office always had a pack of Juicy Fruit gum in the top drawer. The packs were larger back then but my sister and I would make short work of them. The smell of Juicy Fruit still reminds me of him. My sister and I would draw on the chalk board in his office while my dad consulted with his students.

As a treat for being well-behaved at the end of these visits my dad would appear with a large canister of liquid nitrogen. We were ready. We always prepared for this in advance by picking bunches of ivy leaves from the beds around the building. We took the ivy by its stem and dipped it into the canister, careful not to get too near to the billowing cloud of liquid cold. Then we would pull out the frozen leaf and throw it on floor of the tiled hallway, and watch it shatter. Sometimes we would stomp the pieces and watch them shatter more. After we ran out of ivy leaves my dad would have us stand back while he threw whatever liquid remained in the canister down along the hallway floor. The liquid nitrogen would adhere to the particles of dust and we would chase along behind them as they skittered away. Is it any wonder that I saw my dad as some kind of wizard? He once burned a wart off of my sister’s hand with that stuff- this just raised my estimation of him further.

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In Defense of *Honey Boo Boo*

TLC’s new show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, staring 6-year-old Alana Thompson and family has elicited a lot of response, mostly negative. Certainly much of the criticism is valid, especially the argument that beauty pageants for children are detrimental because they sexualize little girls, promote poor body image, and lead girls to seek approval from external “judges” to confirm their self-worth (based largely on appearance).

Yet the question of how women are portrayed in the media is always connected to larger questions of power, and who is in control of representation—especially female representation. The show presents Mama June as an unhealthy, overweight, neglectful, yet wholly happy and content mother, who chooses to subject her daughter to the beauty pageant circuit for the sake of fun and fame. The show focuses on the very worst aspects of June’s life so that we will objectify and judge her. Moreover, the show makes light of any issues June has with herself. For example, although we know June is “dieting,” the diet becomes a joke when June and her teen daughters “weigh in” and find they have lost little to no weight.

Such one-sided “images” of June mask the real reason why she and other parents enter their children in pageants—a reason that is important because it reveals exactly how insidious our culture’s fixation on appearance and an impossible aesthetic of beauty has become. These parents are, at heart, unhappy and discontent with their own looks, and so must relive the dream of youth and beauty through their children. The standard of beauty in modern American society has become SO extreme, that most women (like Mama June) can only imitate it when they are pre-pubescent or adolescent; that is, before they develop womanly curves (hips, thighs, and breasts), when they are still cute and childish and sassy.

Once women’s bodies mature, the ways that they can imitate the beauty ideal become limited. The typical path requires that women resort to dangerous eating disorders, plastic surgery, and/or botox injections to approximate their once youthful faces and figures. But the reality for most women is that puberty permanently withholds the ability to attain the Hollywood/cultural/media ideal of female perfection—wrinkle-free, jiggle-free, and near-to impossible proportions. Sadly, the only way that most women can relive “the dream” of bodily perfection is through their children, who still have youth and metabolism on their side. More importantly, the body of a girl is infinitely flexible in the sense that it can be easily manipulated through make-up, sexy outfits, and padding in the right places. Ironically, when a young girl like Boo Boo cannot fully meet the beauty ideal (because of her weight, ALREADY an issue), she can turn it into comic relief (making her belly talk, resorting to sassy phrases, for example). This clowning allows her audience comic relief, as if Mama June and her daughter were not “really” trying to be beautiful, but just poking fun. This truth, that the clowning is a sham and that the rejection indeed hurts (in so many ways), is sad and sick, but is without question the insidious outcome of a society that creates body hatred and distress in women (and now children) who are unable to meet the beauty ideal.

Let’s face it, healthier ( read “thinner”) women, women other than June Thompson (like those starring on The Real Housewives, for example), do just as much damage to children’s psyches when they choose plastic surgery and botox and a myriad of other costly and invasive body-altering procedures in pursuit of the unattainable ideal. The message being sent to their daughters and to young women watching their programs is that women must go to profound extremes to “fix” what (they believe) is wrong with their bodies. Changing one’s appearance to any extent implies that something is wrong with one’s natural looks, whether the change involves fake eyelashes, tanning, a wig, or a more extreme approach (plastic surgery, extreme weight loss, botox). Such images surely have a terrible psychological impact on young girls.

How can we criticize June Thompson’s decision to enter her daughter in pageants when this is the model of female beauty that we as a culture promote and reward? Yes, pageant parents are certainly at fault for buying in to a beauty ideal that requires children to don excessive makeup, fake hair, and spray tans; but the wider culture should also be held accountable for presenting the Barbie image as the social ideal in the first place. And because we belong to this society, watch the programs, purchase these magazines (and the beauty products they promote), each of us is culpable.

Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is a metaphor of our times. This child becomes, for a short time during her beauty pageants, what the culture asks of her. She is hyper-aware of every detail of her appearance, because how she appears to others, and especially how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as success. Her own sense of self is either confirmed or rejected by these outsiders. This is the danger. That she will begin believing them. When puberty hits and the dream dies, perhaps Mama June will convince Alana that we love “allllll of this” (said by Alana as she runs her hand seductively down her side), and perhaps Alana will decline plastic surgery and avoid an eating disorder. But although June cannot see it for herself, she too, the mama who proudly declares “I tell my girls all the time that I would still love them if they were 1,000 lbs” (Tauber 59) has also bought into the beauty ideal. Otherwise, the public would never even have met Honey Boo Boo Child.

Work Cited
Tauber, Michelle. “Much Ado About BOO BOO.” People. Vol. 78(11).
Sept 10, 2012. 58-61.

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God Still Don’t Like Ugly, by Mary Monroe

(Contains spoilers)

As some of you know, I’ve been commuting from Baton Rouge to New Orleans four days a week to teach. The drive has me in the car for upwards of three hours a day. It is exhausting and a true time suck. To make the time pass more quickly, I’ve been borrowing books on CD from the Baton Rouge library. The selection is not stellar, but because of this, I’ve been listening to a lot of books that I otherwise would probably never encounter. One of these books is God Still Don’t Like Ugly, by Mary Monroe. I had never heard of this author, but picked up the box after reading the blurb on the back cover. It isn’t a romance. It isn’t a historical fiction. It isn’t a bad mystery novel from 20 years ago. Ok, I’ll take it. And I’m so glad I did. Not only was the story fairly unique, but it turns out it features a vigilante woman character, a woman who kills—and not just once, out of necessity, as is usually the pattern. This character, Rhoda, the best friend of the narrator and main character, Annette, has killed a total of five people.

It is hard not to be at least a little sympathetic to Rhoda, despite her blood lust. She is Annette’s best friend, who stood by her through thick and thin. The first person she killed was Annette’s step father, who had been raping and molesting Annette since she was a little child. When Annette finally reveals this secret to Rhoda, Rhoda does not hesitate. She smothers the man to death with his own pillow one night while he is sleeping. Next, she “takes out” a young (white) woman who has been impregnated by her (black) brother and has threatened to cry rape if he will not comply with her demands. She murders the rapist and killer of a 7-year-old girl, a man who lives in her neighborhood and who had had her own daughter to his home for sleepovers. And so on.

Rhoda kills to protect her loved ones, as is the pattern with vigilante killers. But the book differs from the pattern in this regard—Rhoda is deemed wrong, very wrong, by Annette (the only person who knows of her deeds), and is punished by GOD for her crimes. This is an interesting twist to the standard pattern of vigilante killers. In most of the stories I analyze in my book, women who kill are either portrayed as entirely justified in their actions, or at worst, the story is left unresolved (like in Mukherjee’s Wife, which concludes with the murderous act, leaving the reader wondering what will become of the main character). Although Rhoda is never caught by the justice system, never tried for her crimes, her life slowly unravels. She gets cancer and loses both of her breasts. She has a stroke and loses her beauty and her ability to function independently. The moral of the story? God still don’t like ugly, so be careful to behave. It will be interesting for me to think about the way this book compares to vigilante fiction by other spiritual women—I will certainly return to the topic in a later post.

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Review of Country Strong, starring Gwyneth Paltrow

Last night I rented and watched Country Strong, directed by Shana Feste, and starring Gwyneth Paltrow as country music star Kelly Canter. There was no hype about this movie when it opened in theatres (Jan 7, 2011), so I really wasn’t expecting much, but country music plots rarely let me down. This movie was not great, but it definitely had some good moments. I loved the duet between Leighton Meester and Garrett Hedlund (Give into Me)—the song is beautiful, and the on-screen chemistry between the two is palpable. Paltrow did an acceptable job as Kelly Canter, even though her singing voice is mediocre and her southern accent makes me cringe. To her credit, Paltrow played a convincing drunk musician attempting to make a comeback in an industry that places a heavy value on youth and beauty. Kelly’s pain seems authentic enough as she recognizes that she is slowly and inevitably being upstaged by the sober ex-pageant queen Chiles Stanton (played by Leighton Meester). And the fact that Kelly ultimately accepts Chiles and offers her advice (although this scene is woefully short) helps to reverse (if not completely obliterate) the vile message that women are always in competition with one another.

What really prompted me to write about this film, however, was not the acting or the music, but the anti-women connotations in the underlying plot (note, from here spoilers will ensue). Beautiful successful Kelly Canter has it all, but is miserable. Miserable enough to drink herself into oblivion and fall from the stage one night while she is performing, causing herself a miscarriage. This seems to be the one thing for which she is unable to forgive herself. There are two issues here, both equally problematic. First, as the New York Times Movie Review from Jan 6, 2011 points out, (http://movies.nytimes.com/2011/01/07/movies/07country.html), “the only successful woman is a desperately unhappy woman.” This message is sadder than a washed-up country music star. And it is a message that does seem to proliferate in popular culture. But what the New York Times review missed was how this message is complicated by Kelly’s miscarriage. For example, Kelly blames herself for the miscarriage instead of a music industry that drove her to drink, or her husband/manager who seems more concerned with making money than with her health and mental status. Kelly cares for an abandoned baby bird (yeah, this one is over the top) because her maternal instincts have no other outlet. Kelly overcomes her aversion to Chiles and offers the younger woman motherly advice about stardom. Do you see where I am going with this?

Kelly Canter personifies not only the successful women who is unhappy, but more importantly, the successful women who is unhappy (or crazed, or mentally unsound) because she does not have children (the Cate Blanchett character in Hanna also fits this bill: see my earlier post ). I suspect that portraying childless woman as aberrant in film or fiction is a backlash to the increasing number of women who are choosing to forego motherhood in favor of other options. I suspect that mainstream society still fears and/or resents women who remain childless, and especially fears women who are sexually active (like Kelly Canter) for pleasure rather than for purposes of reproduction. The stigma that women without children are terribly unhappy thus proliferates, to deter real women from remaining childless. Portraying Kelly as an addict who is unable to heal because she is unable to conceive sends a clear message: If you have no children you are going to regret it. It may even drive you to suicide.

And that’s the final thing I want to mention, how much I hate that Kelly kills herself. In my book about vigilante women I discuss how authors condemn their heroines to mental or physical illness as a way for their characters to resist emotional entrapment (like the nameless narrator in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and the mother character, Anna Holbrook, in Tillie Olsen’s Yonnondio). Writers alternately invent heroines who attempt suicide to escape constrictive circumstances (such as Edna Pontellier from Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Esther Greenwood from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar). Contemporary authors more often amend these dismal endings by featuring empowered heroines who turn their resistance outward– to oppose the laws that restrict their personal rights, or toward the people who most represent oppression in their lives. Such characters are modern day vigilante women. A better ending (in my estimation) for Country Strong would allow Kelly Canter to live up to the movie’s title—she would find the strength to oppose those who disregard her best interests, thus permanently improving the country music industry for other women artists (like the up and coming Chiles) in some small way.

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Movie Review: Hanna (2011), directed by Joe Wright

Be forewarned: There are spoilers in this movie review.

The movie Hanna, directed by Joe Wright, pits young
and culturally naive Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) against an
evil CIA agent (Marissa Weigler, played by Cate Blanchett),
who is attempting to eradicate all traces of Hanna’s existence.
Hanna is the last surviving “evidence” of a morally
questionable DNA experiment conducted by the government.
The experiment was designed with the intention of creating
an army of super soldiers—humans better equipped than their
non-meddled-with counterparts to decimate and destroy. As an
infant, Hanna is rescued by a rogue CIA agent. He raises her
in the wilds of Finland, teaching her not only how to survive
in the harsh conditions, but also how to fight and defend herself.
Most importantly, he instills in her the drive to destroy
agent Weigler before Weigler destroys her.

Although enjoyable, from a feminist perspective, the film has
some flaws.  For example, I found it interesting that Hanna’s
great adversary is a woman. I suppose the writers thought it
would be too problematic to pit Hanna against a man. It might
alienate the audience to have this young beauty destroy a
full-grown man, or alternately, it might not be perceived as
a fair fight.  Instead, Hanna must assassinate agent Weigler,
a CHILDLESS yet sexualized female, who, because of her
childless status, is portrayed as monstrous. Scary, yes, but
not in the way the writer intended.  In this case, the childless
woman completely lacks the maternal instinct that would make her
sympathetic to Hanna’s plight. Childlessness is thus equated
with monstrosity—Agent Weigler is an aberration, a freak of
nature, somehow less than woman.  This depiction is reinforced
with her cold, ruthless demeanor. Even in private she is deranged
enough to make her gums bleed intentionally when she cleans her
teeth. I can almost guarantee that childless men are never
depicted as monsters.

The ending of the film is also problematic. Whereas the film
could have ended with Hanna showing Agent Weigler mercy and
letting her live, instead, Hanna predictably kills Weigler
without mercy. Thus, the moral of this story is that free will
is nonexistent. Hanna has learned nothing during her foray into
civilization. She is the product of her genetic makeup and nothing
else. She is, in fact, the killing machine that the CIA feared.
Moreover, nothing can be chalked up to her personal strength as
a woman—she has been engineered and trained by men and has
done exactly as they asked.

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Book Review of On Borrowed Wings: A Novel

Chandra Prasad’s On Borrowed Wings exposes the ingrained
sexism of higher education via protagonist Adele Pietra,
who, in 1940, must disguise herself as her dead brother
to receive an education at Yale. The premise of the book
is interesting, as is the implied commentary that gendered
roles are not a genetic reality, but learned systems of
behavior. Class distinctions are also smartly refuted when
working-class Adele excels in her studies, and then “makes
good” by sharing her knowledge with disadvantaged families
of New Haven.

Although the social messages of On Borrowed Wings
reverberate, the downfall of the novel lies in the
one-dimensional portrayal of its secondary characters.
Exactly how many stories about academia involve an utterly
incompetent teacher or administrator who is one-upped by
an underling with a heart of gold? In this case Adele’s
work study is conducted under the “tutelage” of evil
Professor Spang from the Department of Social Demography
and Intelligence. Spang spouts banalities such as the following:
“It used to be that we could keep them at bay…but they’re
encroaching…Some have even managed to steal our women…Pity all
the mixed blood brats they’ve borne. And look what they’ve done
with our money” (124). Yes, we detest ignorant bigots in
positions of power. However, such hackneyed character
portrayals tend to incite more boredom than loathing.

Moreover, the first-person narration is often clumsy and
self-conscious, replete with overwritten lines such as,
“I walked a little faster, then broke into a run, a limber,
startled run, my feet barely skimming the sandy path” (38).

To sum up, read this novel for its interesting story
and superior social commentary, but be prepared to
overlook simplistic characterizations and awkward syntax.
Grade: B-

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Female Vigilantism

What exactly do I mean by female vigilantism? In Vigilante Women in Contemporary American
Fiction, I explain,

“Female vigilantism is most often a recuperative act that addresses systematic flaws
in the American system of justice. Contemporary heroines commit illegal, extralegal,
and at times, deadly, acts in their quest for justice, including the destruction of
property, banditry, robbery, armed combat, and/or even murder. However, because the
women who commit these acts do so for ethical reasons and to establish or protect
their own right to full personhood, their actions assume a significance that manifests
as an equitable view of individuality” (4).

As you can see, I do not uphold the traditional “masculine” version of vigilantism,
which defines the vigilante as “a private individual who legally or illegally punishes
an alleged lawbreaker, or participates in a group which metes out extralegal punishment
to an alleged lawbreaker (OED, second edition, revised, 2005). In fact, I find fictional
female vigilantism to be much more exciting, because the disruptive actions of vigilante
heroines are part of a much wider struggle for women’s rights. The authors of such novels
are participants in a collective movement designed to achieve a more equitable place for
women. The current era of female vigilantism thus involves individualized lawbreaking for
the sake of a common goal.

What makes this topic even better is the way that women in stories of vigilante justice
move beyond prescribed social roles to take action, sometimes for their own protection,
sometimes for the protection of others, sometimes for a moral ideal. As I note in my book,

“Such stories are shocking because the laying aside of typical “womanly” behavior
reveals the “assumedness” of femininity. Within such acts, the heroines of these
fictions demonstrate their ability to act in a “masculine” manner when necessary,
thus exploding gender myths of what constitutes “masculine” and “feminine” conduct” (6).

Rock on, sister soldiers.

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